Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Monday’s Supreme Court decision bans those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from purchasing firearms.
The U.S. Supreme Court voted 6-2 Monday in the case of Voisine v. United States, upholding a lower-court judgment that bars those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from purchasing firearms. In the wake of the recent mass shooting in Florida, this is a small but significant step to decrease gun violence—particularly against women and the LGBT community.
A “dangerous loophole”
If you looked closely enough, Voisine v. United States was always a gun case. Although it came to the Supreme Court wrapped in the technical language of criminal intent, Voisine still had the Second Amendment at its heart.
Per the 1996 Lautenberg Amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968, people convicted of the “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” are barred from purchasing guns. This tweak, Congress hoped, would “close a dangerous loophole” in the body of existing gun-control laws, which allowed convicted domestic abusers to legally own firearms. In 2014, the Supreme Court clarified in the case of United States v. Castleman that state convictions for domestic violence were to be included in this category.
But the petitioners in the case of Voisine argued that they were exempt because of the specific type of domestic violence for which they were convicted. Here’s how Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog summarized the case and explained its central issue:
Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong, the other petitioner in this case, both pleaded guilty in state court to misdemeanor assaults on their respective domestic partners. Several years later, each man was charged with violating a federal law that prohibits the possession of firearms and ammunition by individuals who have previously been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. Voisine and Armstrong contend their state convictions do not automatically qualify as misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence because the state-law provisions can be violated by conduct that is merely reckless, rather than intentional.
The Supreme Court, in Monday’s decision, disagreed. Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the court’s opinion:
Congress’s definition of a “misdemeanor crime of violence” contains no exclusion for convictions based on reckless behavior. A person who assaults another recklessly “use[s]” force, no less than one who carries out that same action knowingly or intentionally. The relevant text thus supports prohibiting petitioners, and others with similar criminal records, from possessing firearms.
In other words, this ruling does precisely what Congress sought to do back in 1996—plug a “dangerous loophole.”
Why this is a significant ruling
In a CNN op-ed from 2014, U.S. Representative and gun-control advocate Gabby Giffords—who survived being shot in the head in 2011 at a public meeting in Arizona—cited a chilling statistic: Women experiencing domestic violence are 500 times more likely to be killed by their partners if there’s a gun around. The fact that guns in the hands of abusers can mean a death sentence for their victims is backed up by a significant body of research. Here’s a 2014 report from the Center for American Progress, for example:
Five women are murdered with a gun in the United States every day, most often by an intimate partner. From 2001 to 2012, 6,410 women were murdered in this country by an intimate partner using a gun—more than the total number of U.S. troops killed in action during the entirety of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
Intimate partner violence, is of course, not limited to women in heterosexual relationships, or to women overall. According to a 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 75 percent of bisexual women and 46 percent of lesbian women have experienced violence in their domestic relationships, compared to 43 percent of straight women. Among men, 47 percent of bisexuals and 40 percent of gay men have been abused in relationships, compared to 21 percent of straight men. The CDC didn’t look at similar data for the U.S. transgender population. The only figures available on this group come from a report by the National Coalition for Anti-Violence Programs, which says that transgender communities are some of the “most impacted” by domestic violence. (Activists say that domestic violence is underreported in this community, and the little available data likely grossly underestimate the extent of the problem.) Taken together, these data make it clear that everyone is at risk if abusers have access to guns.
But Monday’s ruling is significant not only in the context of domestic violence. People who seek to control their partners through violence often want to do the same in society. Perhaps the most visible recent example is Omar Mateen, who shot and killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Mateen, it was later revealed, routinely beat his ex-wife. According to the New York Times:
If it sounds familiar that a gunman in a mass shooting would have a history of domestic violence, it should. When Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group, analyzed F.B.I. data on mass shootings from 2009 to 2015, it found that 57 percent of the cases included a spouse, former spouse or other family member among the victims—and that 16 percent of the attackers had previously been charged with domestic violence.
Of course, Mateen was never convicted for his assaults on his ex-wife, and so would have been able to legally get his hands on a gun anyway. But after Monday’s ruling, those with proven records of domestic violence are all denied the right to own weapons they could later use to hurt partners—or larger numbers of people. This Supreme Court decision is a victory for gun-control advocates, and it’s certainly much more to-the-point than what Congress has been able to agree on post-Orlando. It’s a small step, one that needs to be enforced properly and built on substantially if America is to ever create a meaningful list of individuals who pose a real threat to society, and should be barred from buying guns.